Woven with Passion

A young girl’s love of her grandmother’s textiles was the fabric of an international enterprise

by Rosalyn Graham

Susan Dollenmaier, the CEO and founder of Anichini, a manufacturer and importer of luxury linens and textiles, stands in front of her company’s Tunbridge headquarters. Anichini is a global enterprise with two New York showrooms and retail stores in Manchester and Burlington, Vt.; West Lebanon, N.H.; Dallas; Los Angeles; and New York.

The little girl in northern Illinois learned to love fabrics from her grandmother, who sewed. The young woman brought her antique linen collection with her when she moved to Vermont. A few years later, with a suitcase of collectible textiles, she headed to New York City and discovered that selling and buying fine fabrics satisfied her entrepreneurial soul. Today, 20 years later, Susan Dollenmaier is the owner of Anichini, a company known around the world for its luxury linens and home textiles.

In a world where people go into business with the goal of becoming millionaires and billionaires, Dollenmaier says her point of view is the reverse. “My recurring theme is my deep-seated desire to be involved in an authentic experience in my life with people and with products. All my products are the real thing. They are created because they are beautiful products in and of themselves and then you have to market them. Our intention is to make the most beautiful products we can make in 2005 or 2006 and go from there.”

Dollenmaier traces that commitment to authenticity, as embodied in beautiful textiles, back to her roots. “When people ask me why I have this attachment to textiles, and I’m trying to psychoanalyze myself, some of it goes back to the fact that my maternal grandmother supplemented her husband’s income by sewing. I have such a memory of the parlor in their old house where she sewed. She also made clothes for us, and she made beautiful quilts that we weren’t to get till we were married, made of little bits and pieces of clothes we wore when we were children.”

It was this natural affinity that led her to study design with Buckminster Fuller, one of several endeavors in her early years. It also seems natural that she and New Yorker Patrizia Anichini, a fellow textile enthusiast, would click when they met at Dollenmaier’s sister’s wedding.

Joining up with Anichini, Dollenmaier tested the New York City market with a suitcase of textiles she had collected and found a ready market for their very specialized offerings. “We set up this little gallery that we called Anichini gallery — it was strictly by invitation — and we developed a following of people who were interested in what we were finding and selling.” The pair decided on Anichini’s name for the business because of its Tuscan roots.

Anichini deals in luxury linens of all kinds, including imported and antique textiles and reproductions. Twenty-five percent of the company’s business is customized orders. Dan Levy is the chief operating officer.

As is so often the case in stories of entrepreneurs, hard work was enhanced by good luck. They met the sons of a retired man who had been the country’s largest importer of passementerie (ornamental edgings) and were able to buy, on time, a vast collection of lace and other embellishments.

The invitation to open a small shop in the Barney’s store moved them in a new direction, creating what is known as multiples, instead of the one-of-a-kind items they had been selling. They began buying fine fabric by the yard — Belgian linen and German terry — and adding antique embellishments to make exciting new linens and decorative items. Now they had a collection they could sell to designers or wholesale customers.

The seven or eight years in New York becoming a known name was important to the launching of the business, Dollenmaier says. Also pivotal was a trip to Italy with her then-husband, Robin Mix, a glassblower. Dollenmaier saw old women making lace just like the antique lace she loved, and decorating bed linens. She bought some and brought it back, hoping she and Anichini could figure out a way to reproduce it.

Anichini went to Italy, where her roots were, and made a connection with Italian manufacturers. That, Dollenmaier says, was the beginning of the business as it is today.

There was, however, one more significant development. Dollenmaier became pregnant. A Vermonter since 1974, she told Anichini she wanted to take the concept of newly manufactured goods to Vermont, where she would incorporate it and do distribution. Her identical twin daughters, Tess and Ivy, were born in October 1985. The Vermont incarnation of Anichini turns 20 next year.

Patrizia Anichini continued selling antique textiles in New York for some time, but in 1999, Dollenmaier became the sole owner of the company. Anichini has returned to Italy.

Dollenmaier had lived in Tunbridge since coming to the state to take a job as a social worker. She first saw Vermont on a visit to her sister, who was living in Royalton. She fell in love with the “nature and authenticity” of the place. “Ever since I moved here in 1974, I have never thought for a minute I’d live anywhere else. It’s like coming home,” she says.

Dollenmaier reflects on her life, choices she has made and the challenges of being a woman and an entrepreneur: “I have a great family and we have a great time together. My daughters are fabulous, very family-oriented. I live in a house I built myself up in the hills here, and I have no intention of ever going anywhere. I travel a lot, and when I come back to my house I say, ‘Yah-hoo!’”

If Tunbridge is Dollenmaier’s ideal place to live, it is also a place where Anichini is having a dramatic impact on the economy, though not on the landscape. As the business has grown, she has bought properties in town and expanded into them rather than building new buildings, although she recognizes that would probably be more efficient.

“I have a real commitment to the state of Vermont — the architecture, the history — and I’ve taken a lot of old buildings that were sliding back and put them to a good use.”

Driving through the town of Tunbridge and along Vermont 110 toward Chelsea, there is no obvious sign that Anichini is such a presence, but the yellow farmhouse with the dormers and the barn behind it is the company headquarters and warehouse; a little house down the road is the center for the hospitality lines. A former day-care center (with kiddy art still on the walls in places) is the manufacturing center, a white farmhouse is the furniture department, and accounting is in a former church.

“We don’t have any signs because we don’t want people dropping in,” Dollenmaier says. “This is not where the sales are, but it is the heart of the business.”

About half of Anichini’s 90 employees work in Tunbridge, the rest, spread around the country. From left are: Susan Sisino, a sewer; Carmen Lafromboise, manager of Vermont manufacturing; Meredith Boardman, a sewer; and Mary Degowin, a presser.

The exciting parts of the business for her, Dollenmaier says, are “creating the product, and my employees.” About half of the company’s 90 employees work in Tunbridge, with the other half spread around the country. The company has six retail stores. Three of them — in Manchester and Burlington, Vt., and West Lebanon, N.H. — are company stores; the others — in Los Angeles, Dallas and New York — are full retail shops. The Burlington store opened on College Street in May.

The company also has two showrooms, both in New York. The 5th Ave. showroom is open to the public; catering to the trade is the showroom in the D&D Building, which Dollenmaier calls “the Vatican of design.”

It’s fascinating to visit the workrooms in the one-time day-care center and see the meticulous care of the cutters, sewers and finishers as they fill custom orders for luxury home decor, pillows, curtains, tablecloths and bedskirts. Spectacular fabrics line the rooms on great racks. Here, it is easy to see the link with the Old World craftswomen who still supply 75 percent of Anicini products.

While Dollenmaier has created well-paid jobs in Vermont — most of them for women — she laments the loss of traditional skills in other countries. Of the handmade, hand-loomed fabrics that are her personal passion, Dollenmaier says, “I don’t think they’ll be around very much longer, because even in the time that I’ve been doing business, you already can’t get products that were available 20 years ago in Italy. Those old ladies died, and the kids didn’t want to do it. It’s going to happen in Vietnam, Lithuania, India.”

In the meantime, she says, “We are buying the products and educating people about textiles. In the last two generations, people have forgotten what real textiles are and how to take care of them. People ask, ‘Can I wash these sheets?’ Your grandmother would never have asked that.

“I love fabrics. The thing about textiles is that they are much more fundamental to our civilization and culture than most people realize. We have extremely intimate relationships with textiles. We sleep with them, we wipe our mouths with them, we wipe off our naked bodies with them. They are one of the first inventions, and life would be impossible without them, but we take them for granted. When you buy one of my company’s products, it’s about quality, not quantity. We don’t have to have a lot of stuff, but we do need a few really great things. It’s all mixed in with what I’m trying to accomplish.”

That passion impressed Chris Lyon of the Chittenden Bank, who has worked with Dollenmaier since about 1997. “She has a dynamic leadership style that keeps the company moving; she’s always looking for ways to push the business forward. At the same time she is down to earth and in tune to what is going on, committed to the community and to the state.”

With her daughters now in college, Dollenmaier is expecting that next year she will make a couple of trips, probably to Vietnam and Cambodia, to see their embroidery.

The passion for textiles that spawned Anichini 20 years ago is still very much in Dollenmaier’s voice as she talks about the progress of the company. “We’ve established ourselves as a really serious brand: the Hermes of home textiles, the Lamborghini of linens, the Cartier of bath towels. And the reason is because the product is fabulous. Once you’ve slept on those sheets there’s no going back.” •

Originally published in December 2005 Business People-Vermont